Senaka Edirisinghe with daughter, Jiwanthi
Raising a child is no easy task. In 2012 the United Nations declared June 1 as the ‘Global Day of Parents’ to recognise and appreciate their “selfless commitment to children and their lifelong sacrifice towards nurturing this relationship”. The COVID-19 pandemic has tasked parents with sheltering their children from harm, ensuring they get a good education even out of school, safeguarding their health and well-being and continuing to support children while attending to work responsibilities.
Parenting in a pandemic
Father of three P. Balakumar (36) from Batticaloa has been out of work for three months. He left for his hometown for the weekend in March before the all-island curfew, and could not return to Colombo where he worked as a driver. “Even if I had returned, I would not have had work,” he said. To support his family, Balakumar took up a delivery job for a local shop. He noted his greatest responsibility was towards his children’s education. “We don’t have Wi-Fi at home and my children use mobile data. So we need money to buy data cards,” he said.
“It’s challenging to be a parent during a pandemic, especially when you have little kids that don’t understand the situation. But, I’m glad to have had time to spend with them,” said Nimaya Fernando, a working mother of two from Kandy. To keep the kids busy, Fernando engages them in reading, arts and crafts, and also occasionally bakes with them.
Razni Razick and family
In some homes, grandparents took over the parents’ role due to COVID-19. Leo de Silva and his wife from Colombo look after their grandchildren as his daughter and son-in-law are doctors. “The grandchildren moved to my place because their parents didn’t want to expose them to the virus. We’ve been looking after them since the outbreak,” he explained. Rita, his wife, said they planned the day for the children so they could do their school work and also have time for movies, gardening and baking.
Parents have always faced challenges. Shazna Habib and Shakeel Mohamed struggle to balance their work and home responsibilities while caring for their two children and making time for themselves. But they plan their day and focus on one thing at a time, which helps.
Mother of two K. Perera said the main challenge was when children took things for granted with technology and gadgets. “It’s difficult to instil moral values in them. There is also a lack of emotional bonding, which makes it difficult for parents to understand and connect with children,” she said. Perera sticks to a routine, making time for different tasks, to ensure she can fulfil her responsibilities.
First-time parents Ovini Ekanayake-Pathiravasam and Chirat Pathiravasam were overwhelmed with advice when bringing up their baby. So they decided to follow their instincts and adopt their own parenting style, which they believed would help their child’s emotional and personality development.
Single mother Priyanka Weerasinghe had to play the roles of father and mother in her son’s life. Being a school teacher she understood child psychology and behaviour at various ages and stages. “I was more like a friend to my son, and we were very close. I cultivated that bond so I could understand him better. I also had the support of my family and brought him up in a close-knit family environment. We are also religious, which I believe helped him grow up to be a good-natured person,” she said.
Parents of special-needs children face many challenges. Senaka Edirisinghe, whose daughter Jiwanthi has Multiple Developmental Disorder said the biggest challenge was the lack of support and understanding from society and authorities. He added there weren’t enough opportunities for such children to showcase their talents and to develop themselves. He recalled how he was scolded by a teacher for taking Jiwanthi to the staff toilet. This encouraged him to build a special-needs unit in the school with accessible toilets. “Parents devote much of their time taking children for check-ups and various courses, classes and workshops to develop their skills and abilities,” he said. Senaka left his job to become Jiwanthi’s full-time caregiver, and he also trained her to sing. Jiwanthi’s mother became the family’s primary breadwinner.
Edirisinghe complained of a lack of social security for special needs children. He said many facilities were inaccessible to such children and this hindered their independence. “People also exploit these children in the guise of talent shows and fundraisers. They are also extremely vulnerable to harm,” he said. Edirisinghe added they were once denied visa to a country because of Jiwanthi’s condition “It was an utter waste of money and time. And as parents, we felt horrible that visas were denied because one of our children was a special needs child. But we had no one to report this to.”
Loss and grief
Losing a child and learning to live without that child is probably the hardest thing a parent could endure, Abdul Ismail said. A father of three, Ismail lost his second daughter three years ago to dengue. “We feel the loss every day. It’s so hard, but life must go on. We have to look after our other two daughters and we must be strong for them,” he said. He added for a few months after their daughter’s demise, his parents and his wife’s parents would stay over and help care for the children, helping them process their grief. “I’m glad we had family support because at that time we needed it very much,” he said.
Learning from children
Meanwhile, Weerasinghe said she had also learnt a lot from her son. “He never spoke badly of others and didn’t like hearing bad things about others. He never liked to speak about other’s affairs. Due to this nature of his, even I stopped talking about such matters with him,” she said.
“We as parents are afraid of expressing ourselves. However, children teach us to be expressive and have fun, and to let go of our inhibitions. My sons have also taught me to be appreciative of the smallest things and to be curious,” Shakeel Mohamed said. He added observing how his children adapted quickly to change had helped him also to be adaptive. Perera noted she had learnt that patience when dealing with her two children over the years.
“It’s challenging to be a parent during a pandemic, especially when you have little kids that don’t understand the situation. But, I’m glad to have had time to spend with them"
Watching from afar
M. Saabir (40) from Dunuwila only sees his children once in three years as he works as a driver in Dubai. His wife, F. Haajara, is a domestic worker. They have two daughters aged 20 and 16. Haajara said raising them without her husband was challenging. Saabir regretted missing out on important aspects of his children’s lives. “I toil to earn for them. But I regret not being there when they passed exams and for birthdays.”
T. Kala (42) from Panadura is a fulltime domestic worker in Colombo. She sees her children—aged 18 and 15—on weekends. Her parents look after her children. She used to be a part-time domestic worker until her husband’s demise five years ago. Kala said her older daughter played the motherly role for her younger son and attended to the grandparents’ needs as well. On the weekends, Kala dedicates time for her children and their education. “I ask them what they’ve been up to. I want to see them well educated so they won’t have to go through what I am going through,” she said.
Parent for many
Shazna Habib and Shakeel Mohamed
These challenges and lessons do not apply only to biological parents. Some have parental feelings for children who are not their own. Razni Razick, a mother of one, not only cares for her child but is a parent for many. She is the founder of CareStation, a community development and social welfare non-profit organisation. Razick’s journey started a decade ago as a volunteer caring for street children. Realising her calling, she started working with child probation officers to support orphans and street children and later set up her own organisation. This was challenging as it meant building trust among various stakeholders.
Drawing strength from her husband and CareStation volunteers, Razick overcame these challenges and has spearheaded projects to ensure the safety and wellbeing of orphans and street children and their families through scholarships, sponsorships, livelihood support, community engagement, advocacy and promoting equality and diversity. CareStation is now recognised as a UNHCR partner. Once when she went to pick up medications for some children the pharmacist had asked if she was the parent of the patient. “As I collected the medicine I had the feeling I would be honoured to be called their mother,” she recalled.
“We all have our own personal memories of ups and downs. Experiences we will never forget. That’s what makes the journey interesting and rewarding. There have been tantrums and outbursts, satisfaction and joy, success and failure. Feelings of contentment and accomplishment. My children have made me proud. They have accomplished their challenges with hard work and dedication. The journey was worthwhile,” Perera summed up.
Mohamed said he grew with his children in wisdom and understanding. “The journey is full of wonder, awe, joy and constant learning. Children don’t come with a manual. Every child is different. Parenting is an art, a skill. We have to put all our effort and concentration into developing a beautiful human being who is humane,” he said. His wife Habib added there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. “It only helps to be the version of oneself. Children notice every little thing and imitate their parents.”
“Parents have expectations and tend to burden children. However, children are their own person who have their own interests and aspirations. We should let them follow their path and guide them through the process,” advised Weerasinghe. Echoing this, Ekanayake-Pathiravasam said parents should build trust with children to prevent them from harming themselves or facing mental stress.
“Eventually, all that matters is that you’ve given this world an individual who can make a difference. Someone who believes in being kind and strong, and believes a smile can make a difference to another person’s life,” said Habib, adding parents should be role models and not resort to anger. Her husband, Mohamed, shared parents should ensure their children were well-rounded individuals by bringing them up with wisdom, goodwill, responsibility, compassion and teach them to enjoy life.